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Catholic Voice
  February 9, 2015   •   VOL. 53, NO. 3   •   Oakland, CA
Bishop's Column

The Father Serra controversy

Most Rev.
Michael C. Barber, SJ

These past couple of weeks have been loaded with Catholic news items and events, so it's hard to decide what to write about for this issue. A number of things come to mind.

On Feb. 2, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, the pope celebrated a Mass in St. Peter's to highlight The Year of Consecrated Life, dedicated to vowed religious. As a Jesuit, I am in that category. We are planning a special Mass on Feb. 7 in our own cathedral to do the same. I'll wait until the Feb. 23 issue to speak about the contribution to the Church of vowed Sisters, Brothers and Priests.

The pope also announced during a press conference on his flight to the Philippines that he intended to canonize Blessed Junipero Serra, founder of the California Missions. This took most of us local "Cali" bishops by surprise, as we had not heard if a second miracle had occurred since Serra's beatification in 1988, which is usually required for canonization.

KQED has quoted the pope as saying he has waived the requirement for a second miracle since Father Serra has for centuries been considered a holy man and a great evangelizer.

One miracle was already required for beatification: a nun who was cured of Lupus in St. Louis.

Some say Father Serra caused harm to the Indians he converted. Others say he was a hero ... and genius for organizing the Mission system.

Related Story
Saint or not? News of Serra's canonization draws mixed reaction
Having taught California history in Jesuit high schools for a number of years, I'm familiar with the arguments. My teacher was the famed Rev. Maynard Geiger, OFM, a California mission historian and archivist.

Some of the facts: Indians were free to accept baptism or not. Once they were instructed in the faith and accepted baptism they were required to live in the mission community. They knew this before converting.

The Franciscan padres built the missions at a distance from the pueblos, or towns, to protect the Indians from exploitation by the Spanish and Mexican settlers. (That is why in our diocese, "Mission San Jose" is in Fremont and not San Jose.)

The Jesuits did the same in the famous "Reductions" in Paraguay and other parts of Latin America.

One of the unintended results of the meeting of European and Native American peoples was that Indians were susceptible to diseases brought by the colonizers. Unfortunately, many Indians got sick and died. This is a tragedy.

But is it due to Father Serra ... or the unintended consequence of Europe meeting America? Some critics also point out that if a baptized Indian later ran away from the Mission, as some did, he was forcibly brought back. Yet, knowing these rules and requirements, thousands of Indians converted to our Faith. In one year, 1834, there were 2,300 converts in Mission San Jose alone. Some say the Mission way of life was inferior to the Indians' nomadic life. In 1834 at Mission San Jose there were 24,000 head of cattle, 1,100 horses, 19,000 sheep, hogs and goats and 10,000 bushels of wheat and corn.

The Indians also built beautiful churches and very much enjoyed the sacred liturgies. They composed beautiful sung Masses, which I hope we can resurrect and sing in our cathedral.

The restored and rebuilt Mission San Jose is one of the most beautiful churches in our diocese. When Father Serra first came to San Diego, he rang a bell, held up a cross and through an interpreter began to preach. All he had was the word of God. And the Indians responded to that Truth.

Although there are sure to be many more news articles on Father Serra in the weeks leading up to his canonization (which by the way still has not been officially confirmed), I think Pope John Paul II put the issue in balance when he addressed Native American Indians on his visit to Phoenix on Sept. 14, 1987:

"The early encounter between your traditional cultures and the European way of life was an event of such significance and change that it profoundly influences your collective life even today. That encounter was a harsh and painful reality for your peoples. The cultural oppression, the injustices, the disruption of your life and of your traditional societies must be acknowledged. At the same time, in order to be objective, history must record the deeply positive aspects of your people's encounter with the culture that came from Europe. Among these positive aspects I wish to recall the work of the many missionaries who strenuously defended the rights of the original inhabitants of this land. They established missions throughout this southwestern part of the United States. They worked to improve living conditions and set up educational systems, learning your languages in order to do so. Above all, they proclaimed the Good News of salvation in our Lord Jesus Christ, an essential part of which is that all men and women are equally children of God and must be respected and loved as such. This gospel of Jesus Christ is today, and will remain forever, the greatest pride and possession of your people."

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